Of the six players inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame on Sunday, legendary New York Yankees closer Mariano Rivera was honored last.
“I don’t understand why I always have to be the last,” he joked, eliciting laughter out of the estimated crowd of 55,000, the second largest in the Hall of Fame ceremony’s history.
But “last” is where Rivera became the best. He entered the majors in 1995, and started 10 games that year. But never again after that season — he became a reliever the next year, and by 1997 was the Yankees’ elite closer, the last man into the game. He saved 45 games in 1997, the first of nine seasons in which he’d record at least 40 saves. He also became an All-Star that year, the first of 13 All-Star selections.
Rivera was named to the 2019 Hall of Fame class in January along with Edgar Martinez, Mike Mussina, Lee Smith, Harold Baines and the late Roy Halladay, who was represented Sunday by his widow, Brandy. But Rivera spoke last in part because he is the first player the Baseball Writers Association has ever unanimously voted into the Hall of Fame.
“I want to start this by thanking my good Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ,” Rivera said in his speech, pausing for applause, “for giving me the talent and the blessing, and opening doors I could never close, that no man could close. He has given us a beautiful day today, and it’s amazing. So thank You Lord for everything You have done in my life.”
Rivera continued by thanking his wife, Clara, for being the “pillar of our wonderful family.” Then he thanked his three children, parents, in-laws, siblings, spiritual parents, the late Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, and also the only organization he ever played for during his 19-year career.
“To the New York Yankees organization — [general manager] Brian Cashman and everybody else, front office — it’s a privilege and an honor to just be part of one organization. I did it with dignity, honor and pride. I tried to carry the pinstripes the best that I could,” he said.
Rivera joked that growing up in Panama, he was like every other little boy and wanted to be Pele, the legendary Brazilian soccer player.
“But my abilities were not good enough for me to be a soccer player,” Rivera said. “So the Lord was pushing me to baseball. I love baseball but I didn’t think baseball would be something I would use as a career.”
What a legendary career it was. His Hall of Fame plaque begins, “Set standard for relief pitchers with unprecedented consistency and efficiency as pillar of Yankees dynasty of the 1990s and 2000s,” and continues to list a slew of his accomplishments: a record 652 saves; 2.21 career ERA, lowest for any pitcher with at least 1,000 innings in the live-ball era; postseason record 42 saves and 0.70 ERA in 96 appearances; World Series MVP in 1999; ALCS MVP in 2003.
That’s far from what Rivera had in mind for his future when he arrived in the United States only speaking Spanish. “I didn’t know what I was expecting, but God guided me through,” he said. He asked teammates to help him learn English.
Some of those longtime Yankees teammates were in attendance Sunday: Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada, Tino Martinez, Andy Pettitte, Jorge Posada and Bernie Williams. Panama president Laurentino Cortizo and former boxing champion Roberto Duran also traveled to Cooperstown.
Throughout his speech, Rivera weaved in his gratefulness to and faith in God. If you ask Rivera, he wouldn’t have been on that Hall of Fame stage if it weren’t for God.
Back in that first All-Star season of 1997, Rivera mysteriously developed a cutter that became one of the most feared pitches in baseball. In his mind, there’s only one explanation for how the pitch came about.
“It came from the Lord. Nobody taught me that but Him,” Rivera told Sports Spectrum in 2010. “It’s been tremendous since the first time that I used it. It’s been effective, so I thank God for that.”
Through all the success, serving God remained Rivera’s top priority.
“I believe in Jesus Christ, and I cannot move without His direction,” Rivera told Sports Spectrum. “That doesn’t mean that I’m a perfect man. Now I wish I could tell you that I’m perfect, but I’m not. But I’m always trying to please the Lord, and that’s my goal.”
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